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Prometheus's Fire: Abstracts

Chapter 18: Dublin Corporation and the Development of Technical Education

Jim Cooke

The Science and Art Department (DSA) in South Kensington was the British attempt to relate science and technology with industry after the impact of the 1851 Exhibition which showed the state of competition abroad.

From the beginning however it was clear that the policies of the department were adapted to the needs of mature industries in Britain and not to the infant ones in Ireland. The failure of the Mechanics Institutes in Ireland to fulfil effectively an educational role, unlike in Britain, alerted leading Dublin industrial figures to the need to fill the gap.

A campaign developed in the 1860s, led by Benjamin Lee Guinness and others, to set up a Royal Irish Institute which would carry out the functions of the DSA in the Irish context, suitably adapted. A Dublin Exhibition Centre was planned, for the site which subsequently became UCD in Earlsford Terrace, and the Dublin International Exhibition was held in 1865, staying open for six months.

There developed a campaign to give this continuity, and develop it as a science and arts conplex, or perhaps as a Queens College, or at the very least as a focus for DSA actions in Ireland, under local control.

This movement was led by the Dublin business community, mostly Protestant. A meeting was held in 1868 chaired by the Lord Mayor which agreed to produce a memorandum and lobby all the MPs. A heavyweight deputation, with 23 MPs, went to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on May 26 in London. This lobbying however hit London at a bad time because the Parliament was pre-occupied with the question of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, so they were fobbed off with a commission, to take hearings.

In this context the RDS was, it seems, hostile, suggesting a perceived conflict of interest between the 'improving landlords' who were the RDS mainstay and Dublin business, despite a shared interest in the upgrading of the teaching of science and the practical arts.

The authors explore at length the convoluted politics of this episode, linked as it was with the Church-State question and the fate of Gladstone's government. Subsequently in the 1880s the efforts of the Dublin industrial lobby to get technical education in Dublin was frustrated by the preference of Westminster to support cottage industry in the West.

A resolute campaign developed again, involving the stalwarts of the 60s, and further supported by Michael Davitt and the then new Dublin Trades Council; artisans exhibitions were organised which were successful, and in the end technical schools were set up in Kevin St and later Bolton St, a key mover being Arnold Graves. Pembroke and Ringsend followed.

After 1895 Horace Plunkett who had been elected MP for South Dublin called the Recess Committee, the result of which was the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. There followed the 1898 Local Government Act and this opened the flood gates for technical schools all over the country, and consolidated the earlier Dublin initiatives, under Louis Ely O'Connell, who served as CEO of Dublin technical schools from 1901 to 1943. Thus in a sense the national control of technical education pre-dates the State.

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